Gallaudet University 2019
During June and July 2019, I took six weeks off from work to study American Sign Language (ASL) at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C., the world’s only university for the Deaf and people with a hearing loss. Below is a summary from e-blasts I sent each week to my friends.
When I arrived on campus, I checked into my dorm room, got a student ID card, attended orientation... and, whoa: I love being a student again! Everything is signed in ASL. There is no “voicing” on campus. Deaf people are by nature welcoming and generous to people who try to sign. That is especially true here.
Student again, but without a cochlear implant
or hearing aid for the first time in my life.
It is liberating because I don’t have to wear my cochlear implant (CI) or hearing aid. I don’t have to sit in front of class. I don’t have to position myself to read people’s lips. I can communicate with everyone. I’ve even learned how to sign with one hand while I eat with the other. (A skill that probably won’t come in handy too often, but one never knows.)
Everything is quiet. The only sound in the dining hall is the scraping of chairs. No buzz of voices in the background.
I’m in classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I have several hours of homework each evening. Assignments are video recorded into my laptop and submitted online. The teacher reviews them and provides feedback – all in ASL. As much as I’m enjoying being here, it is no vacation (or at best, only a working vacation).
We are in the middle of Washington, D.C., but it seems like the countryside. Gorgeous, lush landscaping (designed by Frederick Olmsted, who created Central Park) and classic old buildings. Hearing people can hear cars, but I can't. And I don't miss at all.
Gallaudet University Campus, Washington, D.C.
One of the first things I did was get over to the library. There is a video of an ASL performance of Hamlet. The folks there didn’t know about it, but I’ve sent an email to the head of the Drama department. We'll see what happens.
Navigating the city is a challenge. Mastering the “grid” and subways is difficult, and pedestrians use traffic signals merely as suggestions.
Visiting the White House was on my bucket list. Say what you will about tourist sites, but this exceeded my expectations. Wandering through exquisitely appointed rooms, you think about how someone had the vision to create the building to look this way – over two centuries ago.
Reception Hall, The White House.
Homework has, uhm, not gotten easier. But I came here to be challenged, and my teachers are not disappointing me. Signing lessons into my computer, submitting them and then reading the professor's comments continues every night.
Plus this week, I had to stand up in front of two classes and sign a three-to-five minute presentation. I’ve written speeches for other people to deliver in English. But to write a speech, translate it into ASL and get up in front of people was nerve wracking.
Last Wednesday, I met a student who is blind and deaf. We talked at dinner, other people jumped in, all of it conveyed by spelling words and signs into his hand – the way you’ve seen in pictures of Helen Keller. You might think, OMG, blind AND deaf? But we were laughing our heads off, enjoying each other's company and communicating just fine. And you think, “How can I possibly convey an experience like this to people back home?”
Staff at the library are beginning to recognize me. Apparently nobody uses the library over the summer but I'm there a couple of times a week to check out what they have. One of them showed me the ASL sign for "Hamlet." Nothing yet on the video.
Last weekend, I went to… the National Portrait Gallery, Ford’s Theater, the National Gallery and the Holocaust Museum. Plus the Lincoln Memorial, memorials to veterans of WWII and the Korean War, and The Wall (Viet Nam).
Once again, what you think will be tourist sites have far more impact in person. Looking at the statue of Lincoln, with the Gettysburg Address chiseled on one wall, inspires a sense of quiet respect. The Vietnam Wall looks simple on TV and in photos, but is so very moving in person.
Lincoln Memorial. The "tourist traps" weren't
traps at all, They all exceeded my expectations.
Students are here for various reasons: working on their Masters/Ph.D. A few are taking ASL for their foreign language requirement. One woman is a minister for a church that has a lot older members who are deaf.
Ages range from late teens to 60s, with most in their 20s and 30s. Proficiency ranges from fluent to people who are just learning how to spell their names.
Laurie Gerber (also from San Diego) and I
were each other's biggest source of support.
Since everybody signs, you have no way of knowing who has a hearing loss and who doesn’t (not that it matters -- in fact, it seems impolite to ask). At lunch, a woman was wearing her hearing aids. When I asked why, she said she wants other people to know she is Deaf. I just shrugged because I tossed those babies into a drawer the second day of class.
When she found out I had a CI, she jumped up to look at the back of my head. I kept explaining I wasn’t wearing them and then a second person jumped up. What is going on? Turns out they want to see the scar from the implant surgery. That was a first. I’ve never seen it myself but I was happy to show it off. (They seemed disappointed it wasn’t bigger.)
The head of the Drama Department is on vacation. Someone emailed me about Hamlet. He vaguely knows about a filmed production from the 1950s. He’ll try to get more information.
My final week began with a side trip to New York for the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall. Crowds were huge and the entire city was decked out in rainbow colors. A far cry from my first Pride March when I was a student at Columbia in the 1970s. By happenstance, I ended up at an event where I saw many friends from a group I volunteered for in the 1980s.
In "Breakfast at Tiffany’s," Truman Capote writes that "nothing bad could ever happen there.” That’s how
I feel about Lincoln Center.
On campus, I've found a museum hidden away in the Administration Building where the “Deaf President Now” movement took place in 1988. I remember reading about it then, never imaging that I would ever see it, or that it would be so meaningful to me one day.
Stonewall Gay Pride: 50th Anniversary. My first
march was in 1978, when I was a graduate student
at Columbia University. It still gives you a rush.
Sign your order in ASL, or you have to write it down.
Schoolwork never lets up and this week was particularly hard: finals were rushed because we had July 4 off.
In the morning, I went to the Starbucks a few blocks from campus. All business is conducted in ASL. If you don’t sign, they give you a slate to write down your order.
July 4, 2019
That evening, a bunch of us gathered on the top of a parking structure to watch fireworks shooting up all around us. It was a glorious capstone to a memorable month.
I've loved being a student for these weeks and being part of the Deaf Community. Without a doubt, this has been one of the best experiences of my life.
When I returned home, I received an email from the Drama Department: the video of Hamlet in ASL was online. Black and white, transferred to video and then to digital, very dated and the script is abridged. But it's there. No captions… and I was able to follow everything.